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Anoka County Commissioner Robyn West nurses visions of libraries, hospitals, colleges, remote classrooms and public offices, connected to each other and the rest of the world by blazing fast fiber-optic broadband Internet that eventually could reach into home offices in even the most remote corners of the county.
That vision drew one step closer last week, when the federal government approved a $13.4 million stimulus grant that will allow the county to install a fiber broadband "backbone" that over the next two years will link 145 "anchor institutions": public safety, public works and law enforcement buildings; libraries; license centers; and city, county and community buildings. The service area also will include parts of southern Isanti County, to allow for a connection to the Cambridge campus of Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
The sum is only one part of $7.2 billion that Congress allocated to expand broadband access nationally, with the goals of creating jobs and sparking technology investment and long-term economic benefits. It is being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
West said she learned a lot during her year-plus serving on Gov. Tim Pawlenty's High Speed Broadband Task Force, which wrapped up last fall. The idea of increasing Internet speed in Anoka County has been on the table for a long time.
A few years ago, the county did surveys and other work to assess its needs.
"We said we need to do something, but we don't have the funds to do very much," recalled Cindy Kevern, the county's information services director. "Around the same time, we found out about the stimulus. [We said] we know we have a problem, so how do we solve it? And gee, here's the opportunity to do something about it."
The whole project will cost more than $19 million. The county plans to borrow up to $3.5 million through the sale of bonds to cover its share of creating the infrastructure. The county's bond payments will be comparable to what it now pays for much slower service, Kevern said. The county has partnered with a network operator, Colorado-based Zayo Bandwidth, which also will contribute about $2 million. Zayo is not an Internet service provider, however; the county will continue to receive Internet services via the state and private systems it currently uses, but on this new, much faster network.
West noted that some county residents have said they are unhappy that, at first, government offices will be the only beneficiaries of the upgrade, but officials hope that privately held Internet companies will tap into the system, making it accessible to county residents, some of whom still have access only to dial-up service.
In fact, 61 percent of the wire will be laid in unserved and underserved parts of the county.
West said she hopes the opportunity will lead to the creation of new providers.
"I would venture to say that we're immediately going to start seeing some of these smaller companies coming in and working with Zayo as kind of a wholesaler of the Internet in the area," she said. "The beauty of the free market is that competition tends to give you better prices."
West acknowledges that she has held some deep reservations about the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, in principle.
"The stimulus happened and I don't have a choice about that," she said. "There was this certain amount of money set aside to be spent on broadband throughout the U.S. ... It's going to get spent, so I would like to get it back to our taxpayers."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409